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The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

‘We Have Been Believers’: library celebrates African American life

Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Memorial Library celebrates black history month with a new exhibit focusing on African American life in Mississippi.
The exhibit titled: “We Have Been Believers: African American Life in Mississippi 1835-1870,” highlights African American life during the 19th and 20th centuries with a focus on the areas of education, business, civil rights and writers.
Jessica Perkins Smith, MSU’s manuscript archivist, said the exhibit highlights items from the university’s special collections on African American life. 
All of the materials found in the exhibit represent the library’s various departments from archives, manuscripts and rare books.
For this exhibit, Smith wanted to move away from the library’s frequently used collections which were featured regularly in other exhibits.
To give the exhibit a fresh take, Smith began digging into the university’s exhibit collection. What she discovered in her digging produced some interesting finds.
Among the items she found include: political and protest posters from the Clay County Civil Rights exhibit featuring Aaron Henry, Fannie Lou Hamer, and a poster advertising a visit made by Civil Rights heroes Dick Gregory and John Lewis to West Point in 1965.
Items in the literature exhibit include books by novelists Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, as well as lesser known writers such as poet Anselm Finch. Writers like John R. Lynch, a military officer and politician, and William Johnson, a barber, had careers in other fields. 
One of the most interesting pieces from the literature collection, is the diary of William Johnson, a free black man who lived in pre-Civil War Natchez, discovered by a MSU archivist. Alongside Johnson’s diary, sits a Tavern License (which grants permission to sale alchohol) of his mother, Amy Johnson. Smith said Johnson was embarrassed by his mother and wrote about his embarrassment in his book.
Also featured in the exhibit are images from the Freedom Vote held in 1964. Events like the Freedom Vote, though symbolic, Smith said, helped prepare African Americans for the time when they could legally vote.
Smith said one of the goals of the exhibit is to showcase a broad scope of African American life in the state of Mississippi.
“We wanted to show that there was life going on, and lots being accomplished,” Smith said.
She also wants the exhibit to show the variety of African American materials the library currently has in its collection which it is always looking to expand.
“If anybody has old stuff don’t throw it away,” Smith said.
Jennifer Jones, the MSU library graphic artist, who created the exhibit’s graphic logo compromised of African Americans representing the shape of the state, said the initial idea for the logo was rejected.
Although rejected, Jones said, she kept returning to her initial idea. Partly, because Smith kept telling her about all the photos she would feature in the exhibit.
Jones said with the exhibit featuring a wide variety of photos covering many generations it made sense to create a logo showing the importance and contributions African Americans have made in Mississippi’s history.
What Jones wants those who come to visit the exhibit to see, is the sadness but also the hope the exhibit represents.
Stephen Middleton, professor and director of MSU’s African American Studies Department, said any exhibit on African Americans whether it concerns civil rights, history or culture should attempt to examine as broad of a perspective as possible.
From Middleton’s perspective as a scholar and researcher, he said exhibits like the one in the library can help people look beyond the anger of society’s ills such as, racial or economic disparities  while also addressing society’s needs.
As director of the African American studies program, Middleton said he encourages all students to study the contributions and achievements African Americans have made in overcoming enslavement and segregation. His hope is that participation in the African Americans studies program will inspire others to overcome their own obstacles in life.
One thing many young people do not realize about the time period, Middleton said, is that many African Americans found opportunity for advancement where they could. 
People like Ernest Jones, a shoe cobbler in Starkville, who, Middleton said, did not abide by segregation laws serving blacks and whites equally in his store.
Other African Americans like Middleton’s 88-year-old mother-in-law aspired to become a teacher and escape the cotton fields working in. Middleton’s mother-in-law became a teacher and taught for over 20 years. 
“It’s amazing how these individuals right here out of Mississippi saw something different, inspired for something different and pursued something different,” Middleton said.
Middleton said looking at the exhibit will “inspire us to be different from the past.”
Middleton said not examining the past and continuing to believe our past mistakes will keep leading to the same mistakes.
Therefore, Middleton  said he invites others to base their lives on principles which he bases his own life on “to be the difference and stand for something better.”
Smith said she welcomes students and groups to come and visit the exhibit. Tours can be made by appointment.

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The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University
‘We Have Been Believers’: library celebrates African American life